Johann Ludwig Trepulka/Norbert von Hannenheim: Klavierstücke und Sonaten (ECM New Series 1937)

 

Johann Ludwig Trepulka
Norbert von Hannenheim
Klavierstücke und Sonaten

Herbert Henck piano
Recorded April 2005, Festeburgkirche, Frankfurt am Main
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The ever-adventuresome pianist Herbert Henck returns for another dip into obscure waters, this time with a wholehearted survey of the music of Johann Ludwig Trepulka (1903-1945) and Norbert von Hannenheim (1989-1945). Both were twelve-tone composers (both also died in WWII), though one would hardly know it by assuredness of their writing in these austere interwar pieces. Of Trepulka’s surviving piano music we get the entirety here, and his Klavierstücke mit Überschriften nach Worten von Nikolaus Lenau, op. 2 (1923/1924) is especially vital in this regard. For decades, it was his only published work. Fortuitously, three years after recording a performance of these pieces for Radio Bremen, Trepulka’s grandson saw his grandfather’s name on Henck’s website. Henck was then given access to a small fortune of unpublished scores (such coincidences would seem to set Henck apart from many contemporary performers and interpreters). We can only hope these will be documented on ECM in the future. As for Hannenheim, he lived in dire poverty for most of his life, breathing his last in a sanatorium. Praised by teacher Schönberg for his ingenuity, the fiercely prolific young composer could find no publishing outlet for his music at a time of great economic and sociopolitical hardship. His work, along with that of his teacher, would be banned under the Hitler regime.

Despite the tortured climates surrounding both composers, Trepulka’s Klavierstücke mit Überschriften nach Worten von Nicolaus Lenau op. 2 (1923/24) welcome us with an almost Debussean charm. Their resolution of hard realities speaks in pointillist stirrings and turgid harmonies wrought somewhere between lyricism and oppression. The brevity of these pieces (only two go over five minutes) compresses continents of emotion into single counties, each a wellspring of action.

Hannenheim’s territories are no less sweeping, but seem to press their feet more deeply into the ground along the way. The Klaviersonate No. 2 (ca. 1929) is like two jagged lines struggling for synchronicity, only to find that their destination is the same. Other sonatas, like No. 4 (ca. 1929), are even more convoluted, while the jolting ponderousness of the No. 6 (ca. 1929) Andante awakens us to stillness. Intensely effective, if not effectively intense, the staggered rhythms of the Vivace betray an essentially simplistic heartbeat of musical integrity. The resoluteness of No. 12 (ca. 1929) makes brave way into the Konzert Nr. 2 für Klavier und kleines Orchester (ca. 1932), which exists only in this fragment, unwinding itself from a small pool of desperation.

This music represents an interesting confluence of impressionism and hardened interpretation, and behooves the curious listener to wrap her or his cochleae around its fascinations time and time again.

John Cage: Early Piano Music (ECM New Series 1844)

 

John Cage
Early Piano Music

Herbert Henck piano
Recorded December 2002, Festeburgkirche, Frankfurt am Main
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

Two years after his benchmark account of the Sonatas and Interludes, German pianist Herbert Henck returns to the music of John Cage for this refreshing program of early works. Henck’s prowess at the keyboard is matched note for note by tenderness, and in these pieces we find both in full order. His ability to render even the most serial works as lusciously as he does more readily accessible works like 1948’s In a landscape is nothing short of astonishing. Of the latter masterpiece he gives an endearing performance that thrums with drawn-out warmth under his touch—an intimate tapestry spread to reveal every tonal stitch blissfully intact.

Yet it is in the miniaturization of such works as The Seasons (1947), heard to great orchestral effect on the selfsame ECM disc, that one finds this artful program’s most enchanting moments. As with much of Cage’s instrumental music, it feels and flows like nature, is at one with certain understandings of universal design. And so, when we listen to a track like Winter, it does not feel like falling snow, or even the whipping winds of a blizzard, but speaks to a rather different sense of climatic change. Neither does Summer swelter. Rather, these pieces embody their elemental forces. From the scattered Preludes alone, we get a sense of the piece’s intense variation in styles, speeds, and modes of articulation, by turns rather mysterious and straightforward, uncompromised. This is music without form, but in being formless becomes ordered, unfolding at the speed of remembrance.

The five-part Metamorphosis (1938) presents us with some of the more playful moments in these selections, following linear melodies down halls of mirrors. Fleeting like the patter of children’s feet, it breathes over into an innocent finality. After the convoluted yet true-to-form little curiosity that is Ophelia (1946), the handful of piano pieces that concludes the album might come across as pedantic were it not for Henck’s distinctly “vocal” approach.

A worthwhile peek into Cage’s world that allows us to see a composer on the brink of finding his way, Early Piano Music is remarkable also for Markus Heiland’s engineering, which captures every nuance of Henck’s playing with a microscopically attuned ear.

Herbert Henck: Piano Music (ECM New Series 1726)

 

Herbert Henck
Piano Music

Herbert Henck piano
Recorded August 1999, Festeburgkirche, Frankfurt am Main
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

George Antheil (1900-1959) caused a stir in October of 1923 not unlike the one provoked by Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps after performing a selection of his sonatas. Only when Erik Satie, in attendance for the performance, voiced his unflinching support did Paris accept him as the self-anointed “Bad Boy of Music.” What incited the audience was the sheer ferocity with which Antheil played, so unsettling was it in its precision. In doing so, he flirted with the Uncanny Valley, taking the human dangerously close to the mechanical. And while his American debut was met with less fruitful derision, Antheil remained convinced that he was as important as ever. Whatever we may think of the man, his tireless spirit (he was known to practice for 20 hours at a stretch) lives on in the keen performances of pianist Herbert Henck, who makes a welcome return to ECM, pairing the French maverick’s sonic factories with the more intimate production lines of American composer and political outcast Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997). The double meaning of the album’s title, Piano Music, gives us clearest insight into its program. Almost instinctively, both composers took to the player piano, treating it as though it were an organism in and of itself. Henck uses the phrase “piano music” as one might speak of “bird song.”

Of Nancorrow there is little to say, as he spent much of his life in hermetic obscurity (in Mexico, no less, after having been denied reentry into America from Spain, where he took up arms against the Franco regime and professed his allegiance to the communist party), quietly amassing a sizable oeuvre of laboriously perforated pianola rolls, which later astonished the musical world with their depth. Although the selections given here were written before Nancorrow began tinkering with the player piano in earnest, their virtuosity is clear in the autonomy of Henck’s elicitations. Such is the electricity that runs the Three 2-part Studies (1940/41), which “roll” off Henck’s fingers with absolute precision, and do the short Prelude and the Blues of 1935.

The Sonatina für Radio (1929), an infectiously jaunty piece with ragtime flair, is a capricious introduction to the music of Antheil, who makes up the rest of this modest 39-minute album. Among a fine selection of miniatures, some as short as thirteen seconds, are his adroit Second Sonata “The Airplane” (1922) and Mechanisms (1922/23). Where the former employs a host of rotary techniques and melodic turbines, all given upward lift by the aerodynamic contours of its fuselage-like core, the latter is a more enigmatic mosaic of unreachable clusters gilded in consonant frames. This is a piece that asks not which mechanisms are being described, but which are being deployed. One possible answer to that question can be found in A Machine (1932/33), a veritable build-up of static shocks that finds its demise in Sonatina (Death of the Machines) (1922). The (Little) Shimmy (1923) that ends the disc is precisely that, scooting the listener ever closer to an indefinable threshold.

This music was meant to be played by only the most skilled of human performers. Henck handles their notorious challenges with a practical ease nowhere to be found when originally composed, showing us in the process that the animate body is still the most creative machine of them all.

John Cage/Herbert Henck: Locations (ECM New Series 1842/43)

Herbert Henck
Locations

Herbert Henck piano, prepared piano
Recorded 1993 and 2000, Festeburgkirche, Frankfurt am Main

I remember seeing in my teens a documentary about John Cage (the title unfortunately escapes me), in which two seemingly bewildered elderly women are eying the auditory visionary in question as he darts around a concert hall with portable radio in hand. Rather than balk at him, as the viewer is led to expect, one of them simply smiles and says something to the effect of, “Oh look, there’s John, doing this thing.” This endearing moment stands out for me not only because of Cage’s ability to provoke childlike wonder in people of all ages and backgrounds, but also because “doing his thing,” as it was so aptly put, was for him a way of life. I like to think the same holds true for a pianist like Herbert Henck, whose fearless approach to making music is nowhere so explicit as on this timely double album.

The prepared piano is the quintessential Cagean innovation. It exemplifies not only his unwavering interest in play, but more importantly his infectious lucidity. I first heard the prepared piano on the essential Cage tribute album, A Chance Operation (1993, Koch International Classics). The pieces in question were the Three Dances, as played by Charles “Vision” Turner. That congregation of twangs, curtails, and jangles was a gamelan master’s most beautiful nightmare and unlike anything I had ever heard. Henck’s love for indeterminacy is as rejuvenating as his interpretations of the seminal Sonatas and Interludes found here. They are the most well known pieces for the “instrument” (though I am rather tempted to call it a “process”), which is saying much, considering that their fallibility is so markedly present in every utterance. Henck ensures that the pieces’ inner operations are never obscured. Some come across as intensely mystical (Sonata VII) through a depressed sustain. Others are more nervous (Second Interlude). Henck’s preparations encompass a thoughtful spread of percussiveness and vocality, and sometimes all of the above, as in the ritualistic Sonata IX. If favoritism has any validity here, then I humbly embrace the Fourth Interlude as my one and only. Sonatas XIV and XV are also particularly stunning in their crystalline fragility. This is the puppetry of music, the dead brought to fantastic life by a nimble touch.

Henck’s own improvisations, collected here as the Festeburger Fantasies and realized in the spirit of Cage, are like a torrent of pent-up energy suddenly released—a hodgepodge of extended techniques, augmentations, and preparations. Like a ballroom dance gone horribly, albeit enchantingly, awry, they are simultaneously coordinated and tangled amid limbs and unfinished steps. The solos come across as majestic elegies, while in the overdubbed duos Henck seems to wring out as much musical nectar as he can before those particular intersections of space, form, and time elude him. Here is a musician’s entire life compressed into an hour’s worth of unbounded expression.

I can only imagine the challenges such a recording presents to the engineer. Nevertheless, in the hands of ECM every conceivable nuance comes through, pitch perfect and severely organic.

Herbert Henck: Alexandr Mosolov (ECM New Series 1569)

 

Alexandr Mosolov

Herbert Henck piano
Recorded March 1995, Festburgkirche, Frankfurt
Engineer: Andreas Neubronner

“I must compose, and my works must be performed! I must test my works against the masses; if I come to grief, I’ll know where I must go.”

These words, written by Alexandr Mosolov (1900-1973) in a 1932 letter to Joseph Stalin, reveal a composer of fierce disposition and ardent dedication to his craft. The young Mosolov, who had already fought for the Red Army but was discharged for PTSD, continued to see himself as an arm of the Revolution. After earning a living as a silent film pianist, during which time he studied music with Reinhold Glière and Nikolai Myaskovsky, Mosolov had made of himself a pastiche of trenchant modernism and preservationist grace. Of equal dedication is pianist Herbert Henck, who places Mosolov’s work squarely at the crossroads of late Scriabin and early Prokofiev, yet imbues this neglected contemporary with a shadow all his own. Despite being a staunch proletariat, Mosolov was met with resistance from the very faction in whose honor he composed. Enemies in the Soviet Composers’ Union even had him expelled for public disorder and sentenced to eight years in the Gulag. Fortunately, he was released after just as many months when his mentors vouched for his character in a bid for his freedom. During his recuperation, Mosolov extended his interest in the music of Central Asia, particularly in the folk songs in Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, where he traveled to enrich his archive.

The 1920s were Mosolov’s most productive period, well represented by the selections offered here. The Sonata for piano No. 2 in B Minor op. 4 (1923-1924) gives us hints of the “futurism” for which he was most known in such orchestral works as Iron Foundry. Where Foundry is thrumming with productivity, the sonata’s contrast of high clusters and low chords reenact a failing industrial landscape. More confrontational than progressive, it treads with ever-heavier footsteps toward a goal it knows it cannot reach. A morose Adagio applies desperation as a cosmetic and admires itself in a mirror of repetition. Resolve is found only in the culmination of silence, from which the finale is reaped like a crop at the height of ripeness. The Two Nocturnes op. 15 (1925/26) constitute a ponderous, if dynamically diverse, pair, seemingly predicated on a traumatic inward glance and sketchable only in tragedy. After the heartrending opening movement of the Sonata for piano No. 5 in D Minor op. 12 (1925), we come to a whimsical aside, which dances like a childhood dream of Shostakovich before twisting ever so incrementally into a cloudy nightmare. The following Scherzo becomes a violent attempt to awaken oneself in a flurry of futile pinches, all tumbling inward into the physiological certainty that reality is so close and all the more unendurable for its lack of self-awareness. A gorgeous final movement coalesces in dense punctuations in the right hand before plunging into a pool of chords with only potential as life preserver.

Performances of Mosolov’s music were restricted until as late as 1985, since which time it has slowly crept into revival. Leading this quiet march was Detlef Gojowy (1934-2008), musicologist and tireless champion of modern Russian music, whose 1979 “Encounter with the Soviet Union” festival first exposed Henck to the previously obscured composer. Once again, Henck has turned his discovery into ours. He nourishes our ears with palpable meticulousness, playing these pieces as if for the first time, which in some ways he is, liberated as they have been from the annals of unwarranted censorship. These modest offerings are continually fascinating, for they always seem bound to a discernible core surrounded by storms of activity. The entire album is an effigy in sound, every musical gesture describing, however much in artifice, the contours, the ligamenture, the structural integrity of a human body whose only purpose is to burn in remembrance of those who once moved of their own accord. This album is truly a most splendid feather in Henck’s multifaceted cap, and a prime example of ECM’s tireless mission to give forgotten music our undivided attention.

Federico Mompou: Música Callada (ECM New Series 1523)

Federico Mompou
Música Callada

Herbert Henck piano
Recorded August 1993, Festburgkirche Frankfurt am Main
Engineer: Andreas Neubronner
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The calm night
Announcing the advent of the dawn,
The silent music,
The sounding solitude,
The dinner that delights and enamors.
–Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695)

Federico Mompou (1893-1987) lived a long life filled with a quiet love for music. Although much has been said of his three decades spent in Paris, during which time he crossed paths with the likes of Debussy and Satie, it was in solitude that his crowning relic would be fashioned, already in a state of alluring dilapidation, and ultimately far from any of the geographic reference points that dotted his travels. Música Callada came into existence between 1959 and 1967, and represents one of the Catalan composer’s last major works. The untranslatability of its title (most renderings will have it as “Silent Music,” though certain nuances escape) is a key to its enigmatic construction, culled as it is from “Song between the Soul and the Beloved” of sixteenth-century Spanish Carmelite St. John of the Cross (1542-1591). This mystic poem was written as an imagined conversation between the Soul (Bride of Christ) and the Beloved (Christ the Spouse), describing in metaphor the human relationship with the transcendental word and its tangible effects. In the estimation of Nicky Losseff, “‘silent music’ can only be a conceptual audition, perceived not through the fleshy senses but directly through the soul’s inner ear, and as a concept it serves to demonstrate in a way that cannot be grasped at all—and yet cannot be grasped in any other way.” Yet we would be mistaken in thinking of this as a paradox, Losseff goes on to say, for what we hear in Mompou is anything but contradictory. Silent music exists all around us. Not only does it reside in images, dreams, and in our heads, but quite simply in the musical score itself, where notes await the touch of a bow, a fingertip, a human breath to animate them.

Of his Música Callada, Mompou wrote, “This music is silent because it is heard in one’s inner self. Restraint and discretion. The emotion remains hidden, and the sounds only take shape when they find echoes in the bareness of our solitude.” Over time, it has gelled into a slumbering touchstone of the pianistic landscape. The music bypasses all other organs and floods straight into the heart, its songs wavering like the surface of a large body of water describing its own unknowable depths. And while the effect is undeniably gorgeous, it is just as often ponderous, if not mournful. “Lento” is the operative time signature here, and threads the entire work with a tear-stained presence. That being said, no one mood dominates, for each is its own picture in a boundless physiological scrapbook. The crosshatched dissonances of No. 3 tickle the mind’s eye with a slow-motion frolic. The indeterminacy of everyday action animates No. 5, giving way to rustlings in moonlight. Such is the sadness also in No. 6, which drips like rain from the eaves of a house covered in hermetic vines. No. 9 is one of many inward glances, stunning in its honest impressionism. No. 13 haunts with its nervous expulsions of energy, while the final of the work’s four books closes its eyes in darkness.

Mompou’s atmospheres are honed to fine edges, made all the more so for their brevity and sense of direction. Brittle as they are, they manage to slice away our expectations layer by layer, until they rest on a bed of subcutaneous vulnerability. This is delicate music, to be sure, but it also thrives on sacrifice. Speaking practically, fans of his aforementioned French contemporaries will find much to love. Speaking spiritually, anyone might find something here to hold on to, tender and trembling in its infancy, but ever potent in melody and in stillness.

Barraqué: Sonate pour piano (ECM New Series 1621)

 

Jean Barraqué
Sonate pour piano

Herbert Henck piano
Recorded July 1996, Festburgkirsche, Frankfurt
Engineer: Andreas Neubronner
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The legacy of French composer Jean Barraqué (1928-1973) has at last been given its due berth. Pianist Herbert Henck, never one to bow out from a challenge, went through considerable efforts to annotate a viable score (a task that amounted to no less than 125 handwritten pages) from which he could extract this notoriously elusive piece. As this fine disc clearly attests, these efforts have paid off tremendously. The reputation of Barraqué’s Sonate pour Piano would seem to precede any listener’s (or performer’s) familiarity with its sounds. Composed between 1950 and 1952, it plots the multivalent trajectories of the composer’s foundational Serialism into deeper and more formidable territories. Despite the redactions to which it is often confined—namely, Pierre Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata and Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier”—any kinship therein is immediately overcast by the roiling clouds of the work’s uniquely idiosyncratic climate. Thus is his allegiance to twelve-tone rows selectively severed in favor of an approach that is at once enigmatically liminal and highly integrative, as much about erasure as it is about inscription.

The nearly 50-minute work, in two movements, finds its voice in a Pleiadean cluster, as if one were poking a pin into the balloon of the universe and notating everything that came spilling out. Through this porous barrage of galaxies, binary stars, and black holes, the music can only go where gravity bids it to go. Pianistic lows grumble with the weight of time’s inevitable progression, while highs sparkle like meteorites hitting an invisible atmosphere. What seems at first a perplexing experiment slowly fractures into its own auditory urtext. The sonata’s structure is ever unstable, discomforting, and discontented. In it, we see ourselves stripped of age and ideological concern, dropped headlong into a phantom of aberration. We encounter an increasing number of silences, which only coalesce with time into the piece’s final vacuity.

This is, presumably, not music that you will ever find humming to yourself. Rather, its melodies burrow deep into the subconscious, if not spring from it directly, lodging themselves where no other sound dares follow. Henck negotiates the technical minutiae of this piece with his usual erratic grace. He draws out individual notes with crisp punctuation, such that each emerges as a magnetic node to which the drive of surrounding tones becomes attracted. Every gesture seems to blow harder onto embers that would much rather fade, coaxing as much glow as can be had before ashes are all that is left.

Hans Otte: Das Buch der Klänge (ECM New Series 1659)

Hans Otte
Das Buch der Klänge

Herbert Henck piano
Recorded September 1997, Festeburgkirche, Frankfurt am Main
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“It is an old dream of mine that the nature of sounds is discovered and that they are not used in order to express something else.”
–Hans Otte

Hans Otte (1926-2007) was a German composer, pianist, and sound installation artist. A student of Paul Hindemith, he came to see the role of sound as a phenomenon in its own right, and seems to have treated his piano music as a crucible in which musical lexicons might be boiled down to their essential vocabularies.

Herbert Henck offers up this sweeping interpretation of Otte’s twelve-part masterwork, Das Buch der Klänge (The Book of Sounds), as a stunning example of what piano music can grow into when loosed from its binds and allowed to breathe of its own volition. The cycle was three years in the making, and exudes gentle and attentive care. Part I is remarkably consonant, seesawing between the same two chords while alternating with more quickly syncopated passages. From these first moments we get the sense of travel that comes to characterize the trajectory to follow. There is also a nostalgic air that one finds in many of John Adams’s earlier compositions (and especially in Phrygian Gates). Part II undulates in cascades, from which single notes call out with assurance and clarity. Part III returns us to the journey, its slowly applied chords pressing like footsteps into the soil. Part IV erupts in dramatic cloudbursts, bleeding into Part V, in which the same chords are deployed with more urgency. The piano sings here, knitting between its open strings the makings of a vocal tract. Part VI is a linear melody, each note dotting the darkness with a distant galaxy. Part VII is one of the most spiritual sections of the piece, and is like the ostinato of a more expansive composition that never develops into a lead line, but rather looks inward via more pinpointed notes within arpeggiated clusters. In dispensing with the imagined right hand, the music speaks for itself, as if to untie the binds of its inner heart so that each note may flow freely through its ventricles. Part VIII marks the return of cautious footsteps. This is the frustration of travel, the annoyances, delays, and logistic disconnects that are inevitable when experiencing any new culture, however adored. Part IX at last offers some reprieve, giving itself over into rest. It is the time of reflection, when the return seems all too imminent and the lessons learned have hardly had time to take root, and we come to realize that those moments of misunderstanding are the ones we cherish the most. Part X shines like the dawn. Only now do we realize this landscape may be forever lost to us, so we glory in every flaw and perfection alike while we still can, in the hopes of carrying it inside us when we leave. Throughout Part XII, one hears a little Satie peeking through in the finality of its playful departure. It is the quiet checkered landscape below on the return flight, the silent coastline receding behind the ship, the cloud of dust churning behind the bus, the slowly waving hand left behind at the train station. All such moments are brought to bear in Otte’s Buch, so that all we have left is this audible postcard on the back of which Henck has inscribed as much as could possibly fit in such a limited space. But the real beauty of this recording is that, as a tangible object, it can be held, turned in the hands, admired for its cover art, intellectually fed upon through its liner notes, and the journey repeated at any moment one wishes. It is music like this that reminds us of the pleasurable luxury of recordings and their didactic effect. They transport us to unseen locations, or conversely reconstruct those locations stone by stone in our very minds without us having to lift a finger. Most importantly, they allow us to appreciate the very real experiences we have in our own travels, and in doing so give us the gift of hindsight, reminding us of how memory shapes who we are.

Considering Henck’s often-eclectic approach, I was both surprised and reassured by his championing of Otte. Although Henck has always chosen fascinating material, the reductive power of this music is nothing short of revelatory. These sounds speak directly to the heart and feel as if they grew out of solitary nocturnal improvisations. Notions of minimalism are easily vanquished with a careful listen, which reveals a wealth of subtle details and variations peppered throughout. Through the infliction of its uneven terrain, the joys of arrival and the memories that linger once the destination has been found become one and the same. Henck plays with grace and fortitude, making explicit use of the sustain pedal and the instrument’s own internal space. This is music that looks simple on paper, but requires personal commitment to articulation, speed, timing, and volume. Thus, it becomes a magnifying glass into the musician’s, and the listener’s, sense of being. By far one of ECM’s finest achievements.